ATLANTA — The curious case of all-star center Roy Hibbert has been a horror story for the Indiana Pacers. It’s almost as if the former Georgetown standout and Georgetown Prep graduate has forgotten how to play overnight, which has led to big changes for the Pacers entering a decisive Game 7 in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Without much contribution from Hibbert, the Pacers, the East’s top-seeded team, staved off elimination Thursday in their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. They face the Hawks again on their home court Saturday for the right to play the Washington Wizards in the semifinals.
For the Pacers’ sake, it’s probably best if Hibbert plays little.
Pacers Coach Frank Vogel has continued to start the struggling big man. But now is not the time for Vogel to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. The Pacers must defeat the tougher-than-expected Hawks — the NBA’s only postseason team with a sub-.500 record — to avert an embarrassing playoff exit. Keeping Hibbert on the bench could be the formula for victory. It helped the Pacers in Game 6.
On Thursday, the Hawks squandered a five-point lead late in the fourth quarter and an opportunity to close out the series in front of their home crowd. Atlanta encountered its toughest resistance when Hibbert was out of the game — which was often.
After Hibbert picked up two fouls in the first quarter, Vogel finally did what the Pacers hoped he would for some time: He utilized smaller lineups for much of the game. The strategy paid off.
Hibbert is too slow to keep pace with Paul Millsap, the Hawks’ agile big man. Backup center Ian Mahinmi is a much better matchup against Millsap, who entered Game 6 averaging a team-high 21 points per game in the series. In Thursday’s loss, Millsap scored 16 points while missing 9 of 13 field goal attempts. Hibbert played only 12 minutes and did not score for the second game in a row.
“Just have to keep working at it,” Hibbert told reporters recently. “Got to keep playing to the best of my abilities.”
Vogel also altered the rotation in other ways to counter the Hawks’ overall quickness advantage. (Sixth man Evan Turner did not play Thursday.) However, sitting Hibbert was the centerpiece of Vogel’s plan. It’s one he would rather not have implemented.
The past two seasons, Hibbert has been a big part of the Pacers’ development into a title contender. With him anchoring the defense, Indiana led the league in opponent field goal percentage during the regular season.
Assuming the Pacers advance to face the Wizards in an East semifinal series scheduled to start Monday, Vogel likely will need Hibbert in the lineup. Regardless of his production on offense, Hibbert could help on defense against highly effective Wizards big men Nene and Marcin Gortat.
It’s a difficult balancing act for Vogel. He wants to encourage Hibbert and help him get his head out of the sand. First, the Pacers have to get past the Hawks, and “Mahinmi is more of a mobile center,” Vogel said. “You need some mobility [against the Hawks]. I’m just thankful I have two great defensive centers.”
Lately, Hibbert hasn’t been efficient on defense, either.
At 7 feet 2, Hibbert is one of the game’s most intimidating players. You wouldn’t know by watching him against the Hawks. His blocked shots have dropped from 2.25 per game, which ranked fourth in the league during the regular season, to 0.7 in the first round. Hibbert’s problems on offense have affected his effort on defense. He’s just not putting out much. The Pacers’ leader sees it.
“I thought Roy’s strength last year was being able to focus on defense,” veteran power forward David West said. “He was intent on being the rim protector. We’ve been talking about that, trying to get him motivated that way.”
Hibbert’s maximum contract should be all the motivation he needs. He’s making more than $14.2 million this season as part of a four-year, $58 million deal. I’m among many NBA observers who have been critical of owners for giving players such as Hibbert maximum deals before they have earned them on the court. But after Hibbert impressed during the Pacers’ long playoff run last season — burned by Hibbert throughout the East finals, the Miami Heat acquired center Greg Oden for this season specifically to play against him — it appeared he was headed toward great things. Apparently, Hibbert thought so, too.
This season, Hibbert, a two-time all-star, believed he should become a bigger part of the offense. The rest of the Pacers were happy with the status quo. Frustrated with his role and the team’s late-season slide (the Pacers are 15-16, including the playoffs, since March 1), Hibbert called out some of his teammates after a 91-78 loss at the Wizards on March 28.
“Some selfish dudes in here,” Hibbert said in the visitors’ locker room at Verizon Center. “Some selfish dudes. I’m tired of talking about it.”
Bad move. Although Hibbert didn’t name names, his teammates reacted about as well as you would expect. Recently, Hibbert acknowledged he should have kept his issues in the locker room. He has tried to move on. Hibbert just hasn’t done a very good job of it on the court. Then there’s the Andrew Bynum situation.
In February, the Pacers signed the journeyman center for the remainder of the season. The move rattled Hibbert, some longtime Pacers observers say, because he perceived Bynum’s signing as the organization’s lack of confidence in him.
If the Pacers win Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Hibbert could play a key part in the series against the Wizards. Returning home and again being relied upon may be exactly what Hibbert needs to emerge from his long funk. And perhaps this story could have a happy ending after all.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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